Exactly four years ago Monday, Steve Jobs passed away and left behind a type of legacy that’s been held by a select few. That same night, the early screening of the third feature film to hit the big screen since his death was held at the AMC on 34th street in NYC. The film stars Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, Kate Winslet as his go-to team member and Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak—it revolves around the moments leading up to three major product launches, unfolding like a play with three acts.
‘You can be decent and gifted at the same time. It’s not binary’—that idea hangs over the whole film in a way.
After the screening Monday night, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin took the stage for a Q&A. They discussed their portrayal of Jobs, his genius and the making of the film, particularly their collaboration with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. They spoke highly of Mr. Wozniak, praising his magic tricks, his Segway (with a duct-taped flashlight remedying the broken headlight) and the grace with which he’s handled everything.
“In his meetings with us, [he] tried very hard to be the guy we would all want to be—to have no ego about this, [to appear like] ‘no I don’t mind being Garfunkel’ and ‘no, I don’t mind that Steve got credit for things he maybe shouldn’t have gotten credit for—and then in the 31st minute of the conversation you start to see that it does hurt him and that there’s a little he’s angry about. And I knew I wanted to write to that,” Mr. Sorkin said.
Here are some highlights from the Q&A:
What is the relationship between making a masterpiece and being a jerk?
Danny Boyle: When Woz says to him, ‘what do you do? You’re not an engineer, you’re not a programmer, you can’t design anything. What do you actually do?’ you could say that about film directors, virtually all of us. I don’t write, I can’t act, I can’t fix a camera—I can’t do anything really, but you do what he did, which is you synthesize the people who can towards a vision.
One of the things I think is really great about the film is this idea that Woz says—’you can be decent and gifted at the same time. It’s not binary.’ That idea hangs over the whole film in a way. Everybody knows how he behaved, that he was a difficult guy, especially to some people, but for reasons that you see in the film, he explains why he was like that and ‘the B players discourage the A players.’ He was brutal when explaining it and brutal on himself, and he pushed himself as hard as pushed other people.
Is one of you guys secretly Woz?
Aaron Sorkin: Woz is, by the way, a very nice guy, but I’ve never understood a word that comes out of his mouth. I told the studio I didn’t know anything about computers and I needed someone to tutor me and they said ‘okay, we’ll get you Steve Wozniak.’ So we started talking, and after five minutes I said, ‘I need a sixth grade science teacher.’
DB: We went to dinner with him, and he does magic tricks. He doesn’t really even want to talk about computers anymore—he’s amazing. He brought a plastic bag with him, and during the first course, he reaches into it. I’m sitting next to his wife, and she whispers to me that he’s going to do his magic tricks now. He didn’t do them particularly well (certainly not as well as he made computers) but she betrayed everything that he did right before he did it. She’d go, ‘the deck is all twos.’ He and Seth went to the Magic Castle in L.A. together, that thing where magicians meet and admire each other. He goes on cruises, and he advertises that he goes on them so you can book a chance to meet him on the cruise, and you may think you’ll get a chance to talk to him about tech, but he just wants to do his magic tricks for you.
Does he have a magician name?
AS: ‘The Great Wozniak,’ or something like that. No, I don’t really think so, but he’s a terribly nice guy, who, in his meetings with us, tried very hard to be the guy we would all want to be—to have no ego about this, [to appear like] ‘no I don’t mind being Garfunkel’ and ‘no, I don’t mind that Steve got credit for things he maybe shouldn’t have gotten credit for—and then in the 31st minute of the conversation you start to see that it does hurt him and that there’s a little he’s angry about. And I knew I wanted to write to that.
DB: It’s interesting because he and Seth got along really well, and I think Seth had an extra affinity for Woz (and I think he’s a comic genius, and Woz is a genius as well). Because he’s a nice guy too, he doesn’t get the credit for it. Seth kind of bonded with him about that, I think, that we underestimate people and it’s an extension of that thought, that we can be gifted and decent. That’s something they certainly found in common with each other, at the Magic Castle.
AS: Yeah, at the Magic Castle, to which, by the way, Woz rode his Segway, and it turns out, it’s the first Segway. Literally—the serial number is 00001, and the headlight wasn’t working so he had a flashlight taped to the front.
What genre is this movie?
AS: I didn’t want to do a biopic. I think it’s a structure that’s familiar to audiences and I think all of you would’ve come into the theater thinking the first scene would be a little boy and his father looking in the window of the electronics store. Then, Steve would meet Woz, and even if you didn’t know the story (but you do know that story), you’d know the structure of it, and somewhere in the second act they get a drug or alcohol addiction and in the third act they make their best album ever.
Regarding the Steve Jobs that you created, do you think you have to be kind of delusional to will something into existence?
AS: Perhaps. Listen, I have my own theory and I wrote from that theory, and I just want to be really careful that we understand that when I give something that sounds like a psychological diagnosis of a person I’ve never met, please remember that I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in musical theater, so I’m not just some guy off the street saying this.
Here’s where I came from with Steve Jobs: when you’re writing a character like this, it’s important, for me, for the writer not to judge the character. You have to be able to defend the character, and I like to write the character as if they’re making their case to God for why they should be allowed into Heaven. I think that, for whatever reason, Steve felt that he was irreparably damaged in some way and was not worthy of being liked or loved. Don’t worry, I’m fine, but I can identify with that. I’ve often felt like I’d be better off in a room by myself writing pages and I could slip them under the door and somebody would slip a tray of food back, that if you just knew me as a person who wrote these things, you would like me more than the real me. In Steve’s case, he has this talent to wrangle other talented people to make these machines that were not only successful commercially, but we have an emotional relationship. We love these things, and thats why it was important to him that rectangles have rounded corners, that money be spent on fonts and that the ‘opening the box experience’ was a big deal. That was why he would be loved, eulogized. So for Steve, mission accomplished in that regard. But the only person it wouldn’t work on is his daughter, and that’s what the movie was about.
I sleep with my phone under my pillow, check in at night and in the morning and have just accepted this obviously creepy fact. Everybody either has an iPhone in their pocket or is very proud of the fact that they don’t. What do we make of the fact that, not only him, but a lot of the people who made the technology we use, not that they’re bad people, but they’re weird.
AS: I’m really interested in everything that you’re saying, and I think about it a lot. I get a lot of use out of my computer, but mostly as a word processor. I have an iPhone in my pocket, and I was really taken, really surprised to bounce around on the Apple fan sites, first of all at the sheer number of them, and also by the virtual fist fights between Apple people and non-Apple people. The stereotype ascribed to an Apple person—you’re a hipster, a millennial, and there’s a personality involved that I had only seen the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry. And I think you’re asking ‘what’s up?’ with these people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg being a little bit strange, and I think the biggest thing is that we’re all a little bit strange. If you shine a spotlight on any three people, they’re going to seem strange.
Second to that, I wrote a movie about Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, and I think Mark invented something that he needed, whether he knew it or not. And I think Steve Jobs invented something he needed, whether he knew it or not.
Do you ever look back at films you made and see it become glaringly obvious that it’s about something personal rather than the idea you thought it was about?
DB: I had this terrible moment a few years ago when I was sitting with a journalist and he said that all the films are basically the same. And I said ‘what do you mean? I pride myself on the fact that each one is very, very different.’ And he said that each one is about a guy who faces insurmountable odds and he overcomes them. And I go, ‘ okay, that’s absolutely true.’
AS: That’s what every story is about. Sometimes it’s a guy, sometimes it’s a girl and sometimes it’s a furry robot, but somebody has to face insurmountable odds and overcome them, or not.
Were there times when you felt like making a phone is different than making a film?
DB: I don’t know if this answers you directly, but one of the things I found remarkable, really wonderful, because one of problems is, how do you depict genius? How do you depict really, really bright people? Because of the world they work in, you can’t endlessly show them writing code or deconstructing machines. And think what Aaron does is this outrageous elegance of writing that gives to actors the tool to make tech people seem brilliant on screen and not seem geeky, and this guy is the best at it. And it’s not even the vocabulary—it’s very simple and it’s the rhythm of the writing, and it’s built as much through that as it is what they’re saying. It’s like Shakespeare in that when people say it aloud, you sort of begin to get it. It’s in Social Network as well, and it’s speed of thought–you can do it as fast as you can as a director, and then you have this amazing thing in editing where you can speed it up by taking out the breath an actor has to take. It would be impossible for the actor to do because you have to breathe, and we take it out and you get this forcefield of knowledge and brilliance coming at you, and you feel convinced that these are brilliant people.
The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.